Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Beware of false foreign friends!

Sunday, April 3
As I work on making reservations for some travel, I am reminded of a verbal blunder I once made while corresponding by e-mail with the proprietor of a bed and breakfast. After agreeing on the dates and cost, I asked how I could send the deposit. I didn’t know the word for deposit and didn’t want to take the time to look it up, so I just called it the deposito, because I was pretty sure I had heard that word before in my travels. True, I had heard the word, but it is not used the same way in Italy. It means warehouse or storeroom. The word I needed was quite different, which I soon discovered when the proprietor wrote back with instructions on how to make the caparra, with no mention of my gaffe, which he had probably heard from other foreigners before.

Such words are called amici falsi, or false friends, because they fool you into thinking you know what they mean, but they actually mean something else. Here are just a few other examples of false Italian friends:
Sensibile means sensitive, not sensible
Educato means polite, not educated
Fame means hunger, not fame
Largo means wide, not large
Fattoria means farm, not factory
Noioso means boring, not noisy
Parenti means relatives, not parents
Preservativi means condoms, not food preservatives

Many, many times the Italian and English words are similar, which makes Italian easier to learn than other languages, but I have seen and heard some funny stories about false friends and other language blunders which are worth relating.

Of course, the problems go both ways. I once saw a sign in Italian about how a museum was being remodeled and thus was temporarily closed. The explanation ended with “Ci dispiace per il disagio.” Agio means ease or leisure, and disagio means inconvenience, which could be translated more literally to mean a lack of ease. The sign included a complete translation below into English, and it ended with “We apologize for the disease.”

My favorite story comes from my friends Steve and Patti. It involves a British missionary lady who was ordering some work done on her kitchen while she returned on leave to England. She had laid out the plans just fine, until she told the Italian carpenters that she wanted them to purchase and install a cabinet, which she referred to as a cabineto, right here. “Qui?” they asked incredulously. “You want it here? But why?”

“Because that where I want it,” she said. “It’s the most convenient place.”

They continued to question her, but she was insistent: “Mettete il cabineto qui.”

And so they did. There is no such word as cabineto in Italian, so they did what they thought she wanted. When she returned, she found a gabinetto, a toilet, installed in her kitchen. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome.